Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Remote Possibility

Last week Eugene Polley, inventor of the TV remote control, died at age 96. Millions of immobile Americans mourn his loss. His simple invention changed the way we watch TV forever.

I grew up in the era when families had only one TV (an American-made Zenith, natch) and no one had a remote. They existed of course, but they were considered luxuries back then, something only those showoffs in the fancy part of town owned.

Actually our household did have a remote control— me. Most days my Dad would lie on the couch and make me crouch in front of the TV and turn the channel dial (no pushbutton controls back then!) repeatedly until he found something he wanted to watch. We only had a total of three stations to choose from in those days; four if the atmospheric conditions were right and we could pick up Channel 4 in Indianapolis, some 70 miles away. I would stand there for hours cycling through the three channels over and over until I finally landed on something Dad deemed acceptable to watch. Why he thought there would be something different on Channel 10 eight seconds later than the last time he saw it, I have no idea.

Eventually the constant search for quality programming took its toll on our trusty set and the channel dial broke, twisting off in my hand. Resourceful chap that he is, Dad got a pair of pliers out of his tool box and simply used them to turn what remained of the dial. These pliers were retired from general duty and became the "TV pliers," forever kept on top of the set for easy access.

In addition to my channel changing duties, I was also responsible for volume control, picture quality and vertical hold.

My grandmother had a much more elegant solution for her remotelessness at her house. She'd simply plop down in her easy chair and watch Channel 10 non-stop for months without ever once touching the dial. Then when she started noticing reruns cropping up, she'd finally hoist herself from her chair, walk slowly over to the set and change the dial to Channel 2. She'd then proceed to watch it non-stop for the second half of the year. Lather, rinse, repeat.

We didn't have cable TV back then either, as it wasn't offered in our rural area. Once again it did exist, but only in very limited areas. It was most definitely a luxury item, like chauffeurs and polo lessons. It was quite a different animal anyway back in those days, consisting mostly of local and public access programming rather than the endless barrage of mindless pablum it is today. 

No, back in the day we relied on over the air broadcasts, picked up by our trusty rooftop TV antenna. If you've never grown up in a house with an antenna, they were usually motorized and had a clunky control box that sat atop your TV. If your reception was less than optimal you turned the antenna until the picture came in sharp and clear. I wasn't just the channel changer, I also acted as Dad's antenna tuner. I spent many hours turning the antenna while he carefully scrutinized the screen, ready to tell me to stop the instant the picture came in at its best. He'd say, "Keep going, keep going... keeeeeep going... OK STOP!! STOP!! OK, you went too far! Go back... back... THERE! STOP!!!

You would think that once the antenna was pointed in just the right direction that you wouldn't ever have to mess with it again. You would be wrong. Just because the picture looked best when the antenna was pointed at 128ยบ on Tuesday didn't necessarily mean it would look good again on Wednesday, forcing you to turn it to find the sweet spot yet again. But just because you finally got the station tuned in properly, you were't finished! Once the reception on Channel 10 was at its best, Channel 2 would then be a snowy mess, prompting you to have to adjust the antenna for it as well. Yes, it was a golden age.

We had the same black and white Zenith set for many years until we finally got our first color set sometime in the early 1970s. Back then the technology was still in its infancy and there was apparently great difficulty in displaying realistic skin tones. Everyone we knew was constantly adjusting the color and hue knobs on their sets in the quest for the perfect setting. It was a big topic of conversation as well. People would tisk and cluck, "Did you see the faces on the Johnston's TV set? Everyone was green! How can they watch TV like that?" None of that for us though! In our household everyone on TV had glowing ruddy orange complexions, the kind you'd imagine inhabitants of the planet Mercury would have. The oranger the better!

Vertical hold was also apparently a big problem back then, a problem which doesn't seem to affect modern sets. Back then the image on your TV would suddenly and without warning start scrolling vertically up or down, forcing you to run over to the set and start twisting the vertical hold knob to stabilize it. Why this happened so often, I have no idea. We had some neighbors whose TV set was permanently locked into vertical scroll mode, the picture constantly crawling up the screen. Occasionally the scrolling would stop and you'd see the actors' heads on the bottom half of the screen while their feet hovered at the top. Apparently this had been going on for so long in their household that they no longer noticed it, until they saw our heads nodding up and down in an effort to keep up with the picture.

There were no onscreen channel listings back in those days, so if we wanted to know what was on we had to consult the TV Guide magazine. In our household the TV Guide was held with the same regard and reverence that the Bible is in more religious homes. Especially by my Dad. Every week Mom would bring home the groceries and the first thing Dad would do was root through the bags for the TV Guide so that he could start planning the next week's viewing.

The Guide was kept in the magazine rack by Dad's easy chair. The rack was sort of a holy reliquary for the Guide, and God forbid it should ever be moved from it. Occasionally the Guide would go missing, which would cause much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments by Dad. All other activity would then come to a halt and the entire household would be turned upside down until it was found again. Homework could wait, the TV Guide was missing!

Eventually the TV Guide went missing once too often, and Dad actually started tying it to the magazine rack each week, so that it would always be within reach at a second's notice. That's the kind of story that usually makes your therapist's eyes light up when you confess it, as he begins fantasizing about a larger cabin cruiser.

There were no DVRs back in those dark times either. "Appointment Television" was a very real thing and just business as usual. If you wanted to watch a show, you had to be home sitting in front of your set in order to see it. None of this "watch it later when it's convenient for you" jazz like they have nowadays. Many's the time we'd be downtown at Zayres or Topps (two very extinct examples of Departmentus Retailerus) and I'd be perusing the toy aisle, when my parents would suddenly appear, grab me by the arm and frantically yelp, "C'mon, get in the car! It's 7:50 and Rat Patrol starts at 8!" Dad would then take us on a French Connection-like thrill ride through town, going around corners on two wheels in a desperate attempt to make it home before the opening credits started.

Don't chuckle too loudly at the primitive technology we had back in the day though. The day will come when viewers, floating serenely in their sterile Enviro-Chambers, are hooked up directly to their 3D Holosets and will change the channel with but a mere thought or blink of the eye, and they'll smile patronizingly at the memory of us with our 70 inch 1080p liquid crystal display sets.


  1. That was fun to read :)
    The color hues of skin tones made me smile. Sometimes I want to adjust my tv and realize it has just landed on Jersey Shore. It's them not my tv LOL.

  2. Haw! Fortunately I got rid of cable before the whole Jersey Shore thing started, so I can proudly say I've never seen a single episode.

    I can vividly remember my parents commenting on the messed up colors on other people's TVs. Everyone was always screwing around with the color knobs back in the 1970s. I don't think people mess with the colors like that these days. TVs probably adjust themselves.


    Star Trek/Doctor Who Crossover ! Digital copies available ;~j

  4. sigh, yes I fondly remember the color console TV we had, no remote and an antenna up a 30 foot tower, growing up in SW Michigan on a clear day we could WGN, pre lights on Wrigley field mind you, so many a summer afternoon was wasted watching the Cubs which is probably why I am Cubs fan to this day...

  5. this is from your sister: not only were there only three channels, but we had to have the paper tv guide, and God forbid it ever went missing, so it was tied to the magazine rack and you were NOT ALLOWED to remove it.

  6. Haw! I forgot about the TV Guide. I added it to the post.


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